There’s no doubt the Utah Jazz have been missing Bojan Bogdanovic.
Friday night’s 107-101 loss in Charlotte — their third straight defeat on this road trip — was the seventh consecutive game played without their second-leading scorer and arguably their best shooter.
Meanwhile, Juancho Hernangomez, considered by most of the fanbase to be merely a salary-matching throw-in to the trade deadline deal that sent out Joe Ingles and brought back Nickeil Alexander-Walker, made his fifth start for the team in their Bogdanovic-less stretch … and played his best game of the season.
The Spaniard is not going to — or even trying to — make anyone forget about Bogey. He’s just trying to pick up the Jazz’s schemes on the fly and contribute what he can.
“You can’t ask him to go out there and be Bojan Bogdanovic, but by the same token, he’s giving us effort, giving us plays,” said Donovan Mitchell.
Hernangomez’s contributions Friday were multifaceted.
Asked what he saw from his new big man, coach Quin Snyder pointed to two specific areas.
“He crashed the glass early, he got us some extra shots,” Snyder said. “And historically throughout his career, he’s been really good from the corner — around 40% on catch-and-shoot corner 3s — and that’s something that he gave us tonight.”
Indeed, his five rebounds were his third-highest total of the season. Meanwhile, he went 4 for 6 from 3-point range, leading to a 14-point game that doubled his previous scoring high this season.
“They want to blitz and take it out of my hands? I’m gonna find him,” Mitchell said. “We trust him. And when you have that trust from your teammates, it’s easy to hit shots.”
This season has been a difficult one for Hernangomez. After 18 games with the Celtics, he was traded to San Antonio; after a mere five appearances with the Spurs, he was re-routed to Utah. It was hard to get comfortable in his diminishing and ever-changing role — the 3.0 points, 34.8% shooting from the field, and 30.0% 3-point shooting he posted in nine appearances with the Jazz going into Friday were by far the best numbers he put up for his trio of teams this year.
And with the Jazz, going from barely playing initially, to starting once Bogdanovic went out, to getting benched and only playing five minutes of garbage time in Wednesday’s blowout loss in Boston, to starting in Charlotte and playing 28 minutes is … well, let’s call it unique and unusual.
“It’s just the business. As a player, you’ve got to be ready, keep working on your game. I’ve been through a lot of changes — emotionally, changing all the teams, changing all my teammates, coaches, but you’re still the same player,” Hernangomez said. “You’ve got to keep working on your game because if you can stay ready, the NBA’s about opportunity. And when the opportunity comes, just enjoy it and do your best.”
He did that against the Hornets — even as the absence of backup center Hassan Whiteside due to a right foot sprain necessitated him learning a few more new things.
“To be traded here and then thrown into our system, and then expected to start — it’s a lot. I gotta give him credit,” said Mitchell. “… We had him be the five-man for a few possessions; to come from being the three/four to having to be the five, and knowing that role, that’s a lot, figuring that out, picking it up. He’s comfortable you can tell, even though he’s learning. And that’s been a huge part for us.”
He hasn’t been perfect, and wasn’t Friday either. There were some spacing issues, some defensive mistakes. Snyder noted that whenever the Jazz go small — and deploying the 6-foot-9, 214-pounder at center certainly qualifies — “it’s a very different game for us fundamentally.”
Nevertheless, he was a rare bright spot in another singularly frustrating game in an increasingly frustrating season. The hope, from he and the team alike, is that it can also be a harbinger.
If Hernangomez can unexpectedly prove to be a reliable depth piece for the Jazz, they certainly will take it.
And so, he’ll keep working, keep asking teammates questions, and keep trying to do whatever he can to contribute.
“In the NBA, if you get traded mid-season, it’s tough to pick things up quick,” he said. “But I watch a lot of film, I talk to the guys because we don’t have much time to practice. You’re used to playing one way, and they’re used to playing another way, and you just have to find your fit. So I ask a lot of questions, and Don and Mike [Conley], they help me a lot, also the coaches. And I think I’m starting to understand my fit on the team.”